What Causes Asbestosis?
As the name indicates, asbestosis is a disease linked to the mineral asbestos. Not unlike the cancer mesothelioma, asbestosis results from long-term asbestos exposure and is usually contracted by someone who has worked with asbestos on the job. However, those without direct contact can also develop the disease.
Asbestosis is NOT a cancer, but those with asbestosis are indeed at high risk for developing mesothelioma, an aggressive form of asbestos-related cancer. However, some asbestosis sufferers will never develop cancer but may live with asbestosis for years.
How Asbestosis Develops
Also known as Diffuse Pulmonary Fibrosis, asbestosis is categorized as an "occupational" or "environmental" lung disease. It is, quite simply, caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibers.
Unlike most particles that we breathe in on a daily basis, asbestos fibers are long, thin, and needle-sharp and are unable to be filtered out by the nose or bronchi. Therefore, when an amphibole is inhaled, it heads towards the lungs. Technically speaking, the fiber travels deep into the lungs to one of many millions of gas-exchanging structures called alveolus. The alveolus contains many "cleaning cells" called macrophages, which should be able to destroy any particles that make it to the alveolus.
Because of the make-up of the amphibole, the macrophages are unable to destroy them. Instead, the macrophage is sliced up and digestive molecules are spilled into the lungs, causing scarring. Since hundreds of amphiboles are inhaled during prolonged exposure, scarring becomes extensive and asbestosis develops.
Who Gets Asbestosis?
Asbestosis isn't the sort of lung disease one can develop due to a smoking habit. The only known cause of asbestosis is exposure to toxic asbestos fibers. Those who work directly with the material are the most likely candidates for the disease, and because asbestos has been essentially banned or rarely used since the mid-1970s, the most diagnosed cases have occurred in men who worked with the material prior to that decade.
Asbestosis takes at least 10 to 20 years to develop and can actually take much longer than that to appear. That means asbestos-exposed workers are often not diagnosed with asbestosis until much later in life and sometimes long after they've retired. Remember, once asbestos fibers have been inhaled, they cannot be expelled, so the risk of developing asbestosis or mesothelioma is always present, even if the individual in question no longer works with the dangerous material.
Because asbestos was used more often in some industries than others, particular occupations are more prone to an asbestosis diagnosis than others. The industries that have the highest rates of asbestosis include:
- Auto mechanics
- Auto inspectors
- Iron Workers
- Power Plant Workers
- Railroad Workers
If you worked long-term at any of these occupations previous to the asbestos warnings and bans, chances are you were exposed to asbestos on a regular basis and could develop the disease.
It's important for exposed individuals to be diligent and participate in annual chest x-rays to check for the presence of scarring.
Cases of second-hand or "secondary asbestosis" are becoming more commonplace. It is indeed possible to develop the disease from casual exposure to someone who has worked with the material and brought it home on their clothes or body. The most frequent cases are diagnosed in wives of asbestos workers who washed dusty overalls covered with asbestos fibers or in adults who inhaled the fibers as children while playing with a parent wearing these same dusty overalls.
Asbestosis can also develop in an individual who lived near an asbestos or vermiculite mine or a factory that produced asbestos-containing products. More and more instances of environmental exposure are coming to light, so it's important for those who were casually exposed to asbestos to check for lung scarring if they notice changes in breathing or other potential symptoms of the disease.
- What is Asbestos? Department of Health and Human Services, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, January 18, 2007.http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/Asbestos/more_about_asbestos/what_is_asbestos/
- Causes of Asbestosis http://www.wrongdiagnosis.com/a/asbestosis/causes.htm
Last modified: April 06, 2010.